Traditional Labor Laws Apply to the Non-traditional Office
The Department of Labor takes the position that an employer that "suffers or permits" an employee to work more than 40 hours in a week must pay overtime. That can be true even if employers don't authorize the overtime and make it clear to at-home workers that their job is listed for straight time only. Usually enforcement agencies hold that if there's no proof to the contrary, whatever the employee claims is sufficient proof to warrant a judgment for back pay and penalties. And, workers have as long as two—and in some cases three—years to claim these wages.
To reduce the likelihood of wage-and-hour claims by at-home workers, employers should:
- Establish and enforce methods for monitoring work done at home.
- Educate operating managers and supervisors about the necessity for keeping workers within the 40-hour workweek.
- Use such technology as time clocks, or other equipment that records hours.
- Give employees explicit written directions not to work more than 40 hours without prior written supervisory approval.
Health-and-safety law compliance presents another set of problems. There's often the same potential in an at-home office for injuries resulting from repetitive motion, use of hazardous chemicals or lifting as in the traditional workplace. And, because these injuries occur without the witnesses that may be present in a traditional office, workers' compensation claims are more difficult to police. The situation is ripe for fraudulent claims.
Minimal steps should be taken to combat this problem, including imposing strict reporting requirements. Require that all injuries be reported immediately, and request specific information about how the injury occured and what the symptoms are to make verification easier.
Lastly, employees and their employers need to watch out for exposure to third-party injury claims. At-home workers' negligence and intentional acts while employed can make employers liable for damages. Most, if not all, problems can be minimized with proper forethought. Identification of risks and planning to maximize compliance are a must. These usually are areas of responsibility for HR managers. Therefore, companies planning telecommuting programs should ensure that HR considerations don't lag behind the technological focus of such change.
Personnel Journal, September 1994, Vol.73, No. 9, p. 75.